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Charting the shift in Olympic power and sport’s future challenges (JMD at Play the Game)

International sport is facing new power structures, but also a huge task in making sport and physical activity more inclusive. At the closing session of Play the Game 2013, four speakers mapped some of sport’s urgent challenges without reaching a clear consensus on how to assess and deal with them.

By Søren Bang, Marcus Hoy 07 November 2013 Print version

The landscape of sport is changing rapidly with new powers like Russia and Qatar emerging. A lot of challenges are also presenting themselves at the grassroots level where sport’s ability to attract and retain people is being contested.

At the very last session at Play the Game 2013 four speakers presented a global outlook, discussing who holds the keys to the future of sport.

Following the election of new IOC President Thomas Bach on 10 September, German freelance journalist Jens Weinreich mapped out the current structure of the various organisations within the Olympic structure and pinpointed where the power now lies. While the faces may have changed, he said, the IOC continues to operate “almost without transparency and almost without control”.

Weinreich, a former Play the Game Award winner, charted the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that had led to Bach’s succession of Jacques Rogge, and named the key influential players who can garner votes. Prominent among them, he said, was John Coates, IOC Vice President and Head of the 2020 Tokyo Coordination Commission, and SportAccord President Marius Vizer, who enjoyed Vladimir Putin’s support in his successful campaign to be elected as President of the International Judo Federation.

The rising powers in international sport are Qatar and Russia, Weinreich said. Both have control over huge amounts of money; both have future visions, projects and ideas. Sport is an integral part of their visions.

Weinreich also detailed a shift in the hosting of mega-events and world championships away from Western nations towards newly-powerful nations such as China, Russia and Brazil.

Football as ‘soft power’

James Dorsey, Senior Fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, took a closer look at Qatar’s rise as a sporting power which culminated in it being awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The main reason for Qatar choosing to bid, he said, had little to do with country branding or leveraging business opportunities. “[These things] are not worth the money Qatar is putting on the table for this,” he said.

Qatar had carried out a very simple cost-benefit analysis of what it could gain from hosting the World Cup, he said. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Saudi defence umbrella was “not worth the ink it was written on”. Recognising this, Qatar made a key decision based on defence and security concerns. Hosting football’s greatest event gave the nation ‘soft power’, Dorsey said. Qatar’s decision to bid was based on a “very different calculation than any other bidder had made. Who would invade a World Cup host?” he asked.

Sport should adapt to people

Margaret Talbot, President of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE), broadened the discussion by calling for a more inclusive sport and pointed to a number of challenges for physical education and sport, including the need to fight non-inclusive norms, rules and practices. Sport should adapt to people rather than the opposite.

She mentioned the need for a cultural change in sports, e.g. from over-exposure to competition towards retaining participation. But the colliding worlds of physical education and a professional sport with problematic ethical standards is another increasing challenge, she claimed. “Should physical education teachers abandon even trying to teach right from wrong? I think that is big question for the whole of sport to answer,” as she said.

According to Talbot, science should help out by challenging some of the paradigms and stereotypes of sport.

“Sport is full of myths based on stereotypes. Women do not like sport. Men do not like to dance. All sorts of silly stereotypes based on normative assumptions – and some of those become rules in sports,” she said, naming as examples some federations’ double standards when it comes to forcing female athletes to wear non-functional ‘feminine’ sports uniforms – as well as men not being allowed to take part in synchronised swimming.

Global influence in the long run

Representing organised sport, the President of the Danish NOC and Sports Confederation, Niels Nygaard, recognised that parts of international sport are challenged by problems like corruption, lack of transparency, doping and match-fixing. But he challenged the perception that sport in general is facing a crisis. Sport on daily basis has a lot of positive qualities, he noted, arguing for a less confronting attitude towards the international sport organisations.

Instead, according to Nygaard, the Danish NOC tries to influence international sport by being present in as many organisations as possible. One reason for doing this is to affect the rules of international sport, and another is to promote Danish and Nordic values regarding democracy, transparency and good governance, he said.

“But we want to do it in the only realistic way to make changes – and this is by trying to convince our colleagues. Of course it is important to have conferences like Play the Game and critical journalists to make all of us aware of the problems, but the only ones who can really make some changes are the international organisations,” he argued. “We don’t believe we can do it by making a lot of criticism all the time. (…) But we believe that in the long run we will be able to make changes come true.”

How to handle the autocrats of sport?

In many countries sport is in fact more like a tool for governmental politics than an independent movement. Countries like Belarus and Azerbaijan have even appointed their incumbent president as their local NOC president as well.

The question of how to handle the challenge of people and countries with weak or no democratic traditions apparently gaining more power in international sport dominated the following panel debate. “Should international sport organisations be pillars of autocratic regimes?” as James Dorsey asked.

Niels Nygaard refused the idea of direct governmental intervention when asked if the sports movement would call for the intervention of governments in the future, like in the case of doping, to help it resist autocratic regimes. Governmental intervention should only be the case if sports organisations are operating illegally, misusing public funding or if the intervention is about developing and promoting good governmental practice, he said.

“Some say we should not go to Sochi because of the laws on homosexuals in Russia. I don’t think we should stay away. We have to accept there are different cultures and political systems, and just by being there (in Russia) and having them as a part of our international cooperation, I believe we can influence them in the long run,” Nygaard said.

“We can smile at Azerbaijan and Belarus where the President is also President of the NOC. In those instances, where they had a general assembly electing the NOC President, they are formally complying with the IOC rules… whether they are in practice, I am not quite sure.”

Nygaard’s statements provoked a sharp reply from Jens Weinreich, who warned that some of the people that are having an increasing influence in international sport, from the IOC downwards, are anything but harmless; some are outright criminals, some are even murders, according to Weinreich.

But as Margaret Talbot also noted, the international sports organisations won’t take over the whole sports system, including local sport. She addressed what she believes is a broader democratic issue in sport: “I think the biggest problem is the lack of vertical accountability. International and national federations should be accountable to their members, and members should be asking questions. But there is such a disconnection between the grassroots members and the people who run specific sports.”

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